Letter to the editor
Following is a response to an FCW.com poll question that asked: Should government outsource more information technology services?
This is more complicated than a yes-or-no answer can address. In general, the answer is yes, so that's how I voted.
I manage a government IT area, have outsourced the work for more than 25 years, and that has done well. The arguments in favor of outsourcing are:
* Technology changes rapidly and the skills required change with it. Government IT staff members can seldom/never get adequate training to keep up with the technology as there's never enough training money.
* When technology changes, we can change the makeup of the contractor staff expertise to keep up with the needs a lot easier than with government staff. How can you replace a fed when he or she is doing a good job but his or her skills are no longer needed?
* If a person isn't doing the job well, it's much easier to replace a contractor than it is a fed.
On the other hand, I'm leery about the government getting carried away with IT outsourcing and from what I've seen, this is beginning to happen. I think this needs to be done carefully and keeping the following in mind:
* You must retain core government IT staff to manage the outsourced staff, direct the activities, and decide on the direction and technology to utilize. Government managers generally have a weak knowledge of technology and would not be able to provide good IT management. They would not be able to determine if the contractor was giving them good advice or not. Plus, most government managers are much too busy to devote adequate time to managing IT, and far too many are poor people managers in any event. As an aside, the biggest negative change I've see in nearly 30 years in the government is the degradation in quality of mid- and upper-level government managers when it comes to actually managing staff. People aren't being trained well to be managers and leaders and are chosen for management positions for the wrong reasons.
* For continuity, you must have the core government IT staff, and it shouldn't be just one person. Although contractor staff can and will stay a long time in a good environment — often moving to the replacement contractor under a new contract — you can't count on this. Government IT staff must provide the needed continuity.
* The people on the bandwagon say the government will save a lot of money by outsourcing. I can almost guarantee it won't. You have to pay for quality IT staff, and it doesn't matter who they work for. In my view, costs are just about the least important factor in an outsourcing decision.
Gary Bell National Highway Traffic Safety Administration